Monday, October 26, 2015

Twenty English words: fall

Another fine simple English word, tracing itself through ME (Middle English) and OE (Old English) to G (German) and IE (Indo-European), -- a word which has only ever meant itself. Fallen, feallan, "to fall," fallen, "from the Indo-European base phol-, to fall." It has twenty-two definitions as a verb and twenty-one as a noun, of which "the season when leaves fall -- autumn" is the twelfth. Curiously, autumn comes from ME also, autompne, a sport thrown off like a rose branch (roses do this, I think) from OFr. (Old French) autompne, the ultimate derivation being from the Latin auctumnus, "prob. Etruscan." I like that. The Etruscans knew what we know.

A story: On the way upstairs after taking my old shoes out to the garbage yesterday, I met the neighbors on the second floor landing. There had been a party of three on the third floor balcony, I had heard the goodbyes. "Love you. Love you always. He'll help you down the stairs." Husband, wife, and woman friend who lives on the ground floor. She dresses in gauzy black with carved brown boots and silver jewelry, and wears her blonde hair up in a messy bun. 

"Do you have that expensive little blue sports car?" she asked me now.


"Nancy, this is Sue," the man said, and I squeezed in "We've met" -- we had, in the laundry room months before, and subsequently when she has held the door for me occasionally -- while Sue kept talking.

"I was accosted in the parking lot yesterday. It was yesterday morning. A man pulled up next to me as I was parking my car, and he said, 'Hello?'

"Really?" I was distracted by wanting to get home and by her plunging black gauze neckline and the row of little crucifixes dangling off the black lace ribbon around her throat. And the gray roots.

"And then I drove to the Seven Eleven and he followed me. And he got out of his car and he said, 'Did you not hear me say "hello"?' "

"One knee up," the neighbor man said, and Sue said, "What?"

He raised his knee, as if to show how to injure a man. "Or do you have a whistle?"


"Do you?" He looked at me.

"I'm afraid not." By this time I had gone halfway up the next flight of steps. "A whistle," he went on, "a phone call. Anything. If you need anything, just call."

"And I thought, you effer -- I was thinking of all the profanity I could -- "

"Be safe. Be safe, be safe, be safe."

"And then I drove home, and I looked in my rearview mirror and he wasn't following me." 

"Be safe."

"Okay." I reached the landing and looked back as they walked on down the steps, her hand on his arm. "He's like my brother," Sue was saying.

A comment: Pay attention to the wisdom of old ladies. It may be deep in human nature to do so, though sometimes we resent that they know more, for no apparent reason, than we do. Consider how often blunt old ladies are the most interesting and refreshing characters in fiction and film. Miss Marple. Lady Grantham. Think of a few of your own.

Interesting, refreshing, but sometimes disheartening, too. When I was thirteen I sneered privately at my grandmother when she pronounced, "Morals are morals." So hidebound and judgmental, I thought. Of course it turns out she was right. Eight years ago, for her part my mother knew that Barack Obama would be elected president, and said so long before pundits had even begun to hash through all the political possibilities. "I think there's no question," she said. With saddened frustration.

Now she says Hillary Clinton will be the next president. "I think it's inevitable. There is no one else." I can't decide whether she's probably right given her track record and her participation in the wisdom of old ladies, or whether she is -- so far -- only demonstrating what an old-fashioned voter with no computer and no access to the new media still "knows." "Who do the Republicans have?" she asks. "There's no one." In fact there are quite a few, but local television news and the Chicago Tribune apparently don't say much about them. As far as Benghazi is concerned, "Why do they keep going after Hillary about this Benghazi?" she asks. "Why don't they go after her about something else?"

Such as? Is there a choice among Hillary scandals? As it happens, yes. However, my mother has also severed all contact with the Tribune, because she was outraged by the paper's new method of getting subscribers, so if They do go after Her for something else, she may not know much about it. The Tribune launched a customer subscription campaign by which, if you agreed to take delivery of eight weeks of the Sunday paper for free, you would then be billed for continued delivery of the paper beginning with the ninth week. Unless you troubled to call them and opt out. "That's terrible!" she said. "I have to call them to cancel?!"

"I've heard of that," I began to say. "It's the new thing. There's a word for it ...."


"No, there's a word for when you have to opt out of things. Like, you're already an organ donor through having a driver's license, unless you opt out. Obama wants this so the government has more control of everything, figuring people are not going to bother insisting they not do something. I forget what it's called. It's psychological. Prompting ... trending. Nudging! That's it. Nudging."

"It's terrible. I got my book and a chair, and I called the Tribune because I was determined to cancel this thing. I knew it would take forever. And do you know how long I was on the phone?"

"How long?"

"Twenty-five minutes. On hold. I read an entire chapter of my book. Finally I got 'Henry' -- he was probably Mohammed -- and I said to him to cancel that paper. I will never look at the Tribune again. And he started to tell me maybe I should continue to get it and what a great deal it was, and I said, 'I do not want this and I have been on hold for twenty five minutes waiting to speak to someone because I had to call you to not get this paper. I do not want it.' So then he began to back down." 

We talked about more than that, of course. We talked about up and coming generations too loaded with student debt to buy homes or raise families, and about granddaughters in their thirties, unmarried, who are beginning to think they might want a baby after all. We talked about the days when she and her teenaged girlfriends could walk home from the movies in downtown Chicago, at night, "and not think anything of it. I don't know if we were naive or if things were just different. But," a sharp, determined eye here -- "I think they were different."

Pay attention to old ladies. Though perhaps not always fair with Henry, they hail meaningfully, by definition, from an era before "nudging."   

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Twenty English words -- apple

The word apple is not on our original list, but we pursue its definition anyway because we have just learned how to drop a slice of apple into a gin sour, and then how, after dinner, to eat the rest of the apple for dessert alongside a tiny, tiny glass of tangy and half-sweet Madeira.

Apples and gin and Madeira. They seem so English, so colonial, so all-around-sturdy 18th century, don't they? It tempts us to set Pandora to harpsichord music -- "dainty Scarlatti," as Lucia would say -- and then to admire the Duchess of Northumberland's witnessing of the royal table, circa 1761. The king was the not quite twenty-three-year-old George III. (Our own George Washington was a young buck of twenty-nine.) The Dss. witnessed mostly meat, meat, and more meat.
Their Majestys constant Table at this Time was as follows, a soup removed with a large Joynt of Meat and two other Dish such as a Pye or a broyl'd fowl and the like. On the side table was a large Joynt, for example, a large Sirloin of Beef Cold and also a Boars Head and a Sallad; 2nd Course always one Roast, one of pastry and Spinage and Sweetbreads, Macaron, Scollopt Oysters or the like. Their Supper consists of two made Dishes usually composed of Poultry as Chickens, smore Turkey a la Bachomel, a Joynt of Cold Mutton, Buttered Eggs, Custard and constantly Veal and Chicken Broth.
Tucked in amid the meats, she saw also custards, broths, "Bachomel" -- bechamel sauce, probably? -- macaroni, butter, eggs. In other words she saw many things creamy and sweet-soft. Perhaps the 18th-century table still reflected the middle ages' enjoyment of pappy foods as a counter to salted meats and fish; note their Majestys eat not a single piscine creature in April 1761. Lent was over, Easter had fallen on March 22 and everyone was very likely still heartily sick of fish. Perhaps also, among those Joynts, the soupy, custardy spoonfuls represented not just a medieval carryover but a (time-honored) relief to weak teeth.

In any case I think food historians and cookbook writers have noticed, when it comes to old menus like this, that our not-too-distant ancestors either did not serve fresh vegetables much, or if they did so, chroniclers considered it too insignificant to mention. Or did royalty not deign to sup on cabbages at all, for instance? In the duchess' paragraph, above, nothing green is to be imagined except "Spinage" and "a Sallad," and even the spinach sounds as if it was part of a "made dish" with the pastry and sweetbreads. Another pye, maybe.

Fruits make as little an appearance as vegetables. Yet Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 1984, 2004) says that the Western world has been eating fruit for dessert since antiquity. Apples, pears, cherries, grapes, figs, dates, and strawberries were all "Mediterranean natives, used BCE," he writes (p. 250). I google "English apple" and I find a list of seven just to start with. One variety is called the Codlin, used in a famed baked dish called Codlins and Cream. This instantly sounds lusciously 18th century, but the name now seems to have been bizarrely given over to a purple hairy-stemmed wasteground and swamp flower, Epilobium hirsutum. Nice people in rural Wales who call a blog Codlins and Cream show the flower, not the apple treat, as a header photo. Or used to. Coincidentally she had problems with Blogger, too, and had to reboot -- Codlins and Cream 2, why didn't I think of At First Glass 2? -- and to hope that people re-find her.

Meanwhile, Karen Hess in her great redaction Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery (Columbia University, 1981, 1995), explains briefly that the codling apple, hard, tart, and fit only for cooking, was known at least from medieval times and that its middle English name, querdelynge, may come from quert, "meaning sound or hard" (p. 95, the pertinent recipe being "to make a codling tarte eyther to looke clear or greene"). She thinks the word has nothing to do with codling, the fish, even though the codling apple is rather elongated (fish-like?) in shape .... All in all one hopes that Majesty, or anyone, might have savored once in a while simply a nice sweet apple, with a glass of Madeira.

We return to the second of our twenty English words: apple. Webster's: "from the Middle and Old English appel, meaning fruit, apple" -- I love words that only ever meant themselves -- "eyeball, or anything round; akin to the the Old Irish aball, meaning apple tree, and to the Latin Abella, 'the name of a Campanian town.' " No really? Why would ancient Irish, Latin, and English words all have to do with a fruit, the eyeball, and a town? Is the town the modern Avellino, in a southern Italian subregion of Campania that I'll wager we've never heard of? -- Irpinia? Italian travel websites make the legendary "green Irpinia" sound exquisite. They tell us,
It is best discovered gradually, on a journey through the wilderness that whispers of ancient times, when this land was inhabited by Samnites, Romans and Longobards. Ancient villages are nestled in the green of the valleys that begin at the feet of the Partenio and Terminio Mountains, covered by beech, fir, oak and chestnut. In addition to the archaeological sites, massive castles recall not only wars and plundering, sieges and battles, but also celebrations and elegant courts.
Exquisite. If ever I travel, I want to go to the little obscure places like this. I intend no slur. Since the point of travel is evidently to go and look at people who are home, why not do it wholly, and go see places where the people's home life is presumably not much disturbed by the surreality of visitors anyway? Rural West Wales. Irpinia. And, getting back to apple (again), why doesn't our standby Doctor Johnson know much more than we do? He says only that apple, from the Saxon æppel, is 1. the fruit of the apple tree [Pope's Odyssey], and 2. the pupil of the eye [Deuteronomy 32:10]. That "the apple of one's eye" should mean a favorite, and the aperture at the center of the eye literally, and should have links also to schoolchild, and little doll (pupilla), and the reflection of oneself that one can see in another person's eye -- itself akin to the Hebrew idiom "little man of the eye," which is what Deuteronomy actually says, not tapu'ach, apple -- all this constitutes some interior traveling which we will leave for another day.

Image from

Monday, October 19, 2015

Amateur Tudors

2013 Jaffurs Petite Sirah, Thompson vineyard. Fresh Blackberry and blueberry fruit, compared to the brawny pepperiness of Jaffurs' Syrah (not pictured and also very good). Retail, about $40.

I was going to tell a story of a mistake I found on a Tudor history fascination blog, but on reading it over, it seemed snarky and unworthy of me. This is what I was going to say:

There is a very nice website, going great guns since 2009, called The Anne Boleyn Files. My fatheads know how I feel about the Tudors. And I respect people who say Hang it all, it may be unserious and much-too-well-trodden ground, but this is my passion and I am going to indulge it. Claire Ridgway says so, in her About page. She built an audience (I daresay mostly women) plus an online magazine, and recruits professionals (mostly women) to contribute to that. 
Or does she? Recruit professionals, I mean. Would a professional's work compel me to leave this comment, on Tudor Life's October issue page, following an article about Saint Edmund Campion? 
I did enjoy Beth von Staats' "Commoners of the English Reformation," but you'll want to proof her grammar, won't you? Five times at least she invents the word "reclusants" to mean Roman Catholics who opposed the Church of England. "Reclusant" sounds like "recluse," one who hides, so perhaps that is the origin of her mistake. The word surely is "recusant," from the Latin, to refuse or pretend [a cause]. 
I felt compelled. Amateur or professional, who spends lifetimes mooning over Tudor history without encountering the word recusant? 

But, no matter. It's a fine site and they give away Tudor fridge magnets with membership in the Society. You can even go there to order a good looking "Tudor Year" 2016 calendar! I can be generous. It's probably better than mine.   

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Playground -- with Chateau d'Armailhac

Before we start: note the great interview with Matt Drudge, on the demoralizing effects of Facebook and YouTube ('I'll never have 2 billion followers'), on the fact that the internet itself means we will always have documentary evidence of free speech in "former" ages, and on the need for all of us to leave behind the "ghettoes" of comment sections anywhere, and treat the internet as the vibrant, controversial maelstrom-playground it ought to be. "Make your own playground."

Okay. I always like to listen to shrewd men, who made real changes in the world, speak on matters both within and without their fields of endeavor. "The reality of the situation is life on Earth has not changed. We need facts; we need events; we need specifics on things."

"Not all this confusion," Drudge goes on to say, although I differ with him there. Some confusion is good. In the public square it can mean that many ideas are on offer and everyone feels free to speak his mind. Far better that than to live the gently firm but gently ghastly lyrics of, for example, John Lennon's "Imagine," when "the wo-o-o-orld will live as one." Or else, one presumes.

Above, 2012 Chateau d'Armailhac, Pauillac (a subsection of Bordeaux); as the back label explains -- in French, which we will try to tease out -- Chateau d'Armailhac traces its origins to an 18th century family named Armailhacq (and we love the extra q, it looks somehow so medieval or Celtic), neighbors to Chateau Mouton Rothschild. In the famed Bordeaux classification of 1855, the Armailhacqs' "Chateau Mouton d'Armailhacq" earned "fifth-growth" status, which is to say, it was deemed one of only 18 chateaux, out of thousands in Bordeaux, excellent enough to warrant reckoning even among the fifth and last of the five groups classified. The upper four "crus," or growths, in ascending order, each included only ten, fourteen, fifteen, and four chateaux respectively.

Among the fifteen "second growth" chateaux was that neighbor of Armailhacq's, Mouton Rothschild. This latter has been the only chateau whose original classification was ever changed. In the 1920s the legendary Baron Phillippe de Rothschild took over his family's property and began, among other innovations, his lifelong campaign to persuade the French government to promote Mouton Rothschild from second- to first-growth status, a rank he thought it had always deserved. A decree was at last signed by the then minister of agriculture, Jacques Chirac, in 1973. So, wine books that give you easy-to-read charts of the 1855 Bordeaux classification will list fourteen "second growths" and five "first growths," to reflect Mouton Rothschild's unique promotion.

Along the way, Baron Phillippe also bought out two of his neighbors, our Armailhac (no q) in 1933, and Chateau Clerc-Milon in 1970. By the 1950s, our wine was called "Chateau Mouton Baron Phillippe," and then from 1975 to 1988, "Mouton Baronne Phillippe." Note the change in gender, from Baron to Baronne. One presumes this honors M. le Baron's wife, Pauline -- Madame la Baronne, "Mrs. Phillippe" you might say -- since his almost equally legendary daughter, also a baroness and also taking her turn as the chateau's director, was Phillippine In any case in 1989, the wine was rechristened as we see it: Chateau d'Armailhac.

But have you tasted it? I have, now. I will go out on a limb and try to make judgements about a cinquieme cru, fifth growth Bordeaux, not because I have so much experience of sampling these wines and therefore know what I'm talking about, but because the wine seems so assertive that it's almost impossible for anyone to misread. It would be like misreading Donald Trump. Barons and baronnes will be horrified at the analogy, but there it is. You don't have to have a wide experience of financiers/property developers/television stars/presidential candidates to decide what Donald Trump is saying and doing. It's the same with Chateau d'Armailhac. I can tell you, even though I've never deliberately cellared a wine in my life unless you count the bottle of Fenn Valley Capriccio that I neglected for a year and just opened a week ago (an aged Michigan chambourcin! Not bad. Not a lot different, and no worse than, many a simple, berry-like Italian ten-dollar red) -- I can tell you, I say, that today's Chateau d'A. is going to be excellent, -- perhaps in five years, or ten. But I can tell you it is far too young and leathery to be enjoyed now. The opening whiff above that inky-black pool in the glass, of barnyard, barnyard, and more barnyard, and we don't mean in a bad way, tells you that. Plan to have it with beef, garlic, and acorn squash on a fine autumn day in 2025.

Retail, about $50. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Twenty English words: starting with pink

It may have been some novelist -- or it may have been me -- who said during a moment of self awareness 'he had only ever really been interested in two things, the English language and, at a distance, people.'

The part about the English language certainly applies. Remember when we discovered truth trees, and wondered about the etymology of those two words -- remember we imagined the day and the scene when the words might have taken on their meanings, when some Oog the caveman thumped a tree and made some pronouncement that he said was as firm as this? When languages develop, surely some one person, Oog perhaps or some modern engineer, has to be the first to speak a particular sound to mean a particular thing. And it sticks. "Sky." "Email." Like Adam naming the animals.

The etymologies of very basic words have always intrigued me too, ever since I learned how often it's the vital simple words, so alike in modern languages, that are traceable to an Indo-European root, or sometimes two or three weirdly corresponding roots. Like truth and tree. (It seems one must nod here to Sir William Jones, 18th century philologist, who suggested the existence of Indo European, this lost ancestral tongue.) Mother, father, cow, heart, winter (from the same base as water, or to make wet), wolf. All the numbers, one through ten. It's pleasant to think that, once upon a time, our ancestors lived together long enough, somewhere in the Caspian grasslands, for Oog's decisions on words like these to stick. Then we split up, and we became Goths or Hittites or whatever, and began calling less vital, primeval things by culture-specific names. Glass, painting, butter dish. Like the Tower of Babel.

Anyway when you look up any word, a dictionary which includes etymology will cram into the space between the parentheses all sorts of abbreviations. They work backwards in time. They go from OE, say (Old English), to G (Gothic) to OHG (Old High Germanic) to L (Latin) to Gr. (Greek) and often to IE (guess), sprinkling in also the symbol <. It means "derived from." Sometimes it's <?. That's intriguing, too. How can a word be used and spoken despite its basics being utterly unknown? Once only I happened to find a word of no derivation and having "no cognates in any other language." I presume others exist, but this one happened to be toad. Old English, all the way. It only ever meant toad.

So I thought I would devise a new project, called Twenty English Words. Let's look them up. These are the first twenty that came to mind, either randomly or because I thought they might prove simple enough to have deeps and cataracts in their background. Or possibly I was hungry.

pink                                                            book
butter                                                          bread
rice                                                             water
milk                                                            cat
lemon                                                          chair
garlic                                                          lamp
cream                                                         daughter
thyme                                                         son
cup                                                             moon
peach                                                           sky

First on the list for research is 'pink.' I look it up, and what do I learn?


No origin, no derivation, no etymology. Of course the word has definitions. It is a flower of the carnation family, a "pale red" color, it's a verb meaning to cut a cloth with a jagged scissors (a pinking shears) so that the hem will not unravel, and more. But why does the sound pink mean all these things, and why does no one know why? For heaven's sake, we seem to know shoe and sky are related ("a covering"), as are mouse and muscle (<L. musculus, little mouse, "from the fancied resemblance between the movements of a mouse and a muscle," and I am not making that up). But pink is a [<?] mystery.

When my Webster's fails me I turn to the great hero of lovers of English words, outranking even the good Sir William Jones by far I should think, and that is Samuel Johnson. It is amazing how in his Dictionary he can still fill in gaps. And he supports every definition with usage in literature; even my abridged facsimile-presentation copy crams in the explanatory annotation "-Shakespeare" or "-Dryden" with every entry. The full, original edition (1755), which scholars in BBC films are permitted to look at but not touch, includes appropriate lines from this play or poem or that. By contrast when modern dictionaries tell us shoe and sky both have to do with "a covering," we must take them at their word.

Here is Johnson's (abridged) pink.
PINK, n.s [pink, Dutch]. A small fragrant flower of the gilliflower kind. Bacon. An eye; commonly a small eye; as, pink-eyed. Shakesp. Any thing supremely excellent. Ibid. A colour used by painters. Dryden. [Pinche, Danish; pinque, Fr.] A kind of heavy, narrow-sterned ship; hence the sea-term pink-sterned. Shakespeare. A fish -- the minnow. Ainsworth.

The full dictionary entry, to be found online here and what a very honorable project it was of one Brandi Besalke to scan the two original volumes in their entirety and put them there, carries on. We learn it's in Romeo and Juliet that Johnson found pink to mean 'supremely excellent' -- "I am the very pink of courtesy" -- though Johnson allows "I know not whether from the flower or the eye, or a corruption of pinacle."

I know not, either. What a nice coincidence that we also recently embarked on our project of a line of Shakespeare a day, because affectation is fun. In thumbing through the Bard, we are doing a little of what the Great Cham (Johnson) did. The BBC scholars tell us that he did not think of a word, and then painstakingly consult literature to descry usage; he browsed literature, found usage, and then assembled the word list.

"...Commanded by such poor passion as the maid that milks." Antony and Cleopatra, IV, xv.


Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...